Yes, healthy eating is possible on a tight budget

“Healthy food is too expensive!” This is a common response from many folks who view “healthy foods” (such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat) as too pricey to afford, but is it really? Eating healthy may seem out of your reach (or a stretch of your paycheck) but with some advanced planning and a little know-how, it is possible.

While deals on processed foods like soda, boxed meals, chips, sugary cereal and fruit snacks may seem to be your answer on how to spend your food dollars, eating well on a budget is easier than you think. Besides, a lifetime of buying cheap, highly processed and not-so-healthy foods will likely backfire on your health. Developing a chronic health condition such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure is often related to poor food choices. In the long run, you will end up spending far more money on treating your chronic health condition (doctor visits, medications, hospitalizations) than you would have if you chose healthy foods more often.

The thing to know is that healthy eating is not simply purchasing high dollar foods. There are ways to enjoy a variety of high-quality, nutritious, and affordable foods that fit into your food budget, and reach your health goals.

Make a plan

If eating healthy is your goal, you must have a plan to do so. This means planning ahead for the week, which is usually done on the weekend or whenever is convenient for you. Here’s how to do it:

  • Plan meals around fresh produce, lean proteins and low-fat dairy that are on sale.
  • Check store flyers and available coupons on the same items for additional savings.
  • Compare national brands and private store labels for the lowest price.
  • Use sale items in simple meals – baked, grilled or broiled lean meats and fish, veggies and whole grains.
  • Find quick and easy recipes online.

Make and use a shopping list

Once you’ve created a weekly meal plan, make a shopping list of all the ingredients for the coming days. Use your food dollars to purchase nutrient-rich produce, low-fat dairy, lean proteins and whole grains.

Use similar ingredients for different meals to cut back on the number of ingredients you will need to buy. Save money by not buying highly processed foods, sweets, sugary beverages and packaged snack foods, all which provide few if any healthy nutrients.

Do not shop when hungry or rushed. Going to the grocery store hungry makes it too tempting to make random purchases of unhealthy foods not on your grocery list.

Shop seasonally for fruits and vegetables

Buying produce at its peak flavor, during the season it tastes best, should save you some money since it is more readily available. Farmers markets are a great way to stock up on produce grown locally and are often at a good price. Don’t overlook buying frozen or even canned fruits and vegetables, as they are smart buys. Frozen fruits (with no added sugar) and vegetables are very comparable to fresh in nutrition quality, last longer, and help reduce food waste. Purchase no salt added or low-salt canned veggies, which also have a long self-life.

Good, low-cost produce available all year includes:

  • Vegetables – carrots, leafy greens, potatoes, summer and winter squash.
  • Fruit – apples, bananas and grapes.

Organic vs. conventionally grown foods

The debate over which is healthier to be eating – organic vs. conventionally grown foods – has shown that both can be part of a healthy diet. If you can afford to buy organic and prefer doing so, go right ahead. But do know that the nutritional quality between organic and conventionally grown food is very minimal. Both can be part of a healthy diet providing quality nutrition. However, due to growing methods and yields, conventionally grown food is typically cheaper than organically grown foods. If your food budget only allows buying conventionally grown food, that’s perfectly okay. You can feel good knowing that either way, the food is a nutritious, healthy product.

Save money on high dollar meat

Meat is usually the highest dollar item to buy. If you have the space to store it, it is best to buy a large quantity of meat on sale. Prepare this meat ahead of time to last for a couple of meals or more and to save you time after a long day at work. Try a couple or more of meatless meals a week, or use beans or chopped veggies to replace half of the meat in a recipe such as meatloaf, chili, or burger patties. Use nutrient-rich canned salmon or tuna in place of more expensive fresh fish. Beans, eggs, cottage cheese, and nuts can be cost-effective and nutritious.

Prep food

Some meals can be prepared in advance. Take advantage of days when you have some time to precook foods such as rice or chicken breasts. Consider double or triple batching of recipes to freeze meal-sized containers of soups and casseroles or to divide into individual portions in the weeks ahead. This cuts down on dependence of fast food meals when time is tight. Got leftovers? Incorporate them into a subsequent meal.

Waste not, want not

Food waste is, unfortunately, a more common occurrence than it should be. Each year it is estimated the average American wastes more than 200 pounds of food.

Before you head to the grocery store, do a once-over of your fridge, freezer, cupboards and pantry so you don’t purchase something new you already have. At the grocery store, look at the expiration date before buying. Stores use expiration dates to indicate freshness and when best to use before spoilage happens. Inspect fresh fruits and veggies for any bruising, insect damage or being overly ripe.

Proper storage of food when you bring it home is essential. For example, storing raw meat in the meat drawer, keeping it consistently cold, is a good method of proper food storage. If you do not plan to use meat within a day or two, freeze it. Dairy foods should be kept in the back of the fridge – not on the door. Even dry goods won’t keep forever. Canned and boxed foods are best kept in a cool, dark pantry away from heat; nuts and whole-wheat flour should be kept in the fridge or freezer.

Once a week look through your fridge to see what’s in there. Try to plan meals around what you already have, to use as much of it as you can to prevent food waste.

Now that you know that eating healthy doesn’t need to be expensive, try some of these ways to fit high-quality, nutritious food into your budget.


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia. Visit her website at www.eatwelltobewellrd.com.


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